The Khitan, or Qidan as they are known in Chinese, were a nomadic people originating in eastern Inner Mongolia.1 They first appear in records of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534 CE), where they are described as descending from the Xianbei peoples. Later Chinese records provide us with over five centuries of historical information relating to the Khitan prior to the founding of the Liao dynasty in 907. These histories can be divided into three main periods. In the first periods (344-648), the Khitan ranged in a section of land between Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, relying on hunting, animal husbandry and trade. During this time their numbers expanded from two to eight semi-independent groups. During the second period (628-730), these eight groups came together under what came to be known as the Dahe Confederacy. The confederacy was ruled by a council representing all eight groups, though the entire body remained under the jurisdiction of the Tang government. The last period (730-907) is marked by the forging of the Yaoning Confederacy, named for the Yaoning clan which rose to power in the early eight century. After instigating an uprising, the Yaoning leaders killed the rest of the council members, simultaneously destroying the authority of the Dahe council. It was during this last of the pre-dynastic periods that the Khitan began experimenting with agriculture and craftsmanship, and cities with permanent structures began to appear in regions administered by the Yaoning confederacy.2
In 901, Yelu Abaoji, one of the Yaoning leaders, began to take advantage of the weakened state of the Tang empire by embarking on a series of military campaigns focused on subduing other nomadic peoples north of the Chinese border, as well as a number of Tang-controlled territories directly to the south. Yelu Abaoji became absolute ruler of the Khitan after executing the other Yaoning council leaders in 907, though a formal state would not be established until 916 (the title of the dynasty would fluctuate between Qidan and Liao until 1066, when Liao was adopted as the sole dynastic name). Over the next decade Yelu Abaoji would continue his policies of military expansion until 926. By this year, the year of Yelu Abaoji's death, all of northeastern China north of the Tang empire was under the control of the Khitan.3
In 936 Shi Jingtang, formerly a frontier general for the Later Tang dynasty (a short-lived dynasty which attempt to restore Tang rulership, founded seventeen years after the fall of the Tang) established the Later Jin dynasty. His power base was consolidated partly with military aid provided by the Khitan, and in return, Shi Jingtang ceded sixteen border prefectures to the burgeoning Khitan empire. After the founding of the Song dynasty in 960, the Song court made the recapture of these sixteen prefectures a high political priority, which resulted in a number of campaigns with the Khitan over the next thirty years, all ultimately unsucessful. In fact, these Song campaigns ultimately strengthened their enemy, since in 1004 the Khitan retaliated with a push deep into Chinese territory until they threatened the Song capital itself. The Song court negotiated a surrender, which led to the signing of a treaty that stipulated an annual tribute of 200,000 bolts of silk and over 8000 pounds of silver be sent to the Khitan by the Song court to guarantee that they pull back and cease to their hostilities.
Besides significantly enriching the Khitan coffers, the treaty also resulted in stronger political and cultural relationships with the Song Chinese court. In the following decades the Liao court made use of Chinese advisers and Song administrative techniques, and also adopted Buddhism, though not with the same enthusiasm as did other later empires of nomadic origin, such as the Mongols. The Liao dynasty also differed from most of China's other non-Chinese empires in that they kept an interest in preserving their own Khitan cultural heritage. While the Liao government incorporated a number of aspects of Song court culture and political bureaucracy, the emperor and his court retained Khitan rites, rituals, foods, clothing and language. They even went so far as to devise their own writing system for their spoken language. This is in stark contrast with other nomadic empires that came to rule in China, which tended to adopt the Chinese language and cultural practices often at the expense of their own.
One element the Khitan adopted from the Chinese (or perhaps this too was preserved from their own culture) was a notion of ethnic superiority to the other nomadic peoples which they conquered and governed. These people were basically considered to be on the same social level as slaves and other beasts of burden, while the sedentary farmers of Chinese and other ethnic origin were treated only marginally better, after the Khitan forcibly removed them from the former Chinese provinces to Inner Mongolia. The Liao dynasty became ruthlessly exploitive of these various groups, and responded with extreme brutality to the uprisings which occurred with growing frequency towards the end of their dynastic reign. One group, the Jurchen, known to the Song dynasty as the Nuzhen, were one of the first of the various nomadic peoples to be conquered by the Khitan in the tenth century, and was one of the most strongly oppressed. Song records describe the capture of Jurchen women for the purpose of forced prostitution, catering to Khitan nobility. These kidnappings sometimes even included the wives of Jurchen aristocrats.4 The Jurchens eventually became so enraged that, with the help of the Song military, they successfully rose up against the Liao dynasty in the early twelvth century. By 1115 they had establish a new successive rule known as the Chin dynasty (1115-1234 CE), which controlled a large area former governed by the Khitan. After a decade of warfare, the Liao dynasty was finally crushed in 1125. The Khitan people scattered, and were eventually absorbed into the Jurchen populace.
(1) This entire section on the Khitan relies heavily on information published in Adam T. Kessler, Empires Beyond the Great Wall: The Heritage of Genghis Khan (Los Angeles: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1993), pp. 89-118.
(2) Kessler, pp. 89-91.
(4) Ibid, p. 117.